The emergence of competition (resulting in lower bill rates) as well as rising operational costs (wage, infrastructure, overheads) have put tremendous pressure on the margins of ESO companies. A popular method to retain/improve margins as well as to beat the competition is to improve productivity. Productivity initiatives are driven to reduce time taken to complete a task or the number of people required to perform a task. While they are essentially a combination of process improvement and/or automation, this forms the stepping stone for innovation in the organization. As productivity initiatives are not restricted to specific individuals or teams, the success depends on the culture that is built in the organization.
At QuEST, we launched the Operations Productivity Improvement Initiative in Sep 2012. The major difference from earlier drives were
- Open to engineers across all bands (earlier restricted to supervisory and above)
- Creation of an ideas portal (allows anyone to submit an idea anytime)
- Appreciate ideas (formation of PI Leaders in different centers who would assist the submitter to elaborate the idea and submit to the council)
- A PI council comprising of members from all geographies who evaluate the idea and recommend/reject it for funding
- A funding mechanism to support the development of the idea (earlier we just left it to the individual to pursue the idea and not many did it for lack of funding)
- A formal mechanism to implement the idea and track the benefits
Starting from a few ideas per week, we now get about 30-40 ideas per week across the globe. Over 100 of these ideas have been funded and close to 40 of them have already been implemented resulting in savings of several hundred thousand dollars to our customers and ourselves.
The culture of sharing ideas, the process of evaluating them, funding them and bringing them to fruition are the building blocks to the next step of innovation. At QuEST, we believe that the culture needs to be incorporated first and the results would follow. We followed Kotter’s 8-steps for creating this change:
- Establish a sense of urgency – The top leadership of the delivery units was convinced about the need and their second lines needed some clear messaging/data to be convinced. We had to shake people out of their comfort zones to be creative.
- Form a powerful guiding coalition – The next step in the productivity initiative was to form a team of productivity leaders who were drawn from the delivery teams. These members were senior folks who had the passion and drive to lead the change within their operating units. These leaders had themselves led large teams and could easily collaborate with each other despite cultural diversity.
- Create a vision – The head of delivery presented his vision to a senior audience and conveyed what he wanted to achieve out of the initiative. This crisp presentation still is the backbone of all our efforts on this initiative.
- Communicate the vision – Several methods of communication were used starting with specific mailers, articles in our newsletters, direct communication from top to bottom, targeted campaigns with teasers, forums on the intranet and so on. The productivity leaders talked to several team leads/engineers and explained the vision.
- Empower others to act on the vision – The productivity leaders in turn identified certain champions within their centers who helped the leaders to drive the vision. Engineers who submitted ideas were personally thanked, each and every idea submitted was treated as though there was never a better idea, ideas not belonging to a department were forwarded to others to take action (and tracked to closure). Employees were encouraged to share without fear, to share without prejudice and this saw a huge traction in employee engagement.
- Plan for and create short term wins – At the beginning, we only focused on whether the message was going down to the last engineer or not. The key success was measured by the number of ideas submitted by execution level engineers. While the ideas could have been better in terms of quality, the numbers didn’t disappoint us and our first wins were measured by these metrics. We also publicly acknowledged those who actively contributed to these ideas and set a sort of competition amongst the different centers. This being done, good ideas were funded into realizable projects to demonstrate success.
- Consolidate improvements and produce more change – It was felt that early winners would become champions in their own areas and drive this even further. A roadshow of successes was organized to create more awareness.
- Institutionalize new approaches – Productivity improvements help improve margins (profitability) for the organization. Communication of evidences to reinforce the connection between good behavior (productive engineer) and corporate success (profitability) is essential. QuEST has also linked the success of the initiative to the performance appraisal for senior managers to drive this across.
The success of the productivity initiative has made us to believe that companies like QuEST can begin their innovation journey through the same steps. The significant improvements in process that have saved several hundreds of thousands of dollars for our customers is well appreciated by the customer, is seen as a differentiator for us and opens up the mind of our staff to believe that they can think of improvements and implement them.